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No Place Like Home
By LINDA LAEL MILLER, Kat Martin, MARY CARTER, LAURA FLORAND
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Kensington Publishing Corporation
All rights reserved.
Holiday traditions are as unique and varied as the families who celebrate them. Especially Christmas traditions. Some families allow their little munchkins to open one present each on Christmas Eve, others have to wait until after church Christmas Day. Some people carve into golden-brown turkeys, others succulent hams. Some stockings are hung with care, others carelessly slung over chairs. Some folks send out newsletters braying about their achievements, others Twitter their tragedies. Some real trees look fake, some fake trees look real. Some people's lawns erupt in a carnival-like display of lights and animation that promptly comes down the second of January, others throw up a single strand of bulbs that choke the house until July.
Some things are the same for all revelers. Televisions up and down the block cascade through It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Rudolph, and Frosty. Mailboxes overflow with Christmas cards. Christmas carols blare from department store speakers, and Santa Claus and his elves hit the mall. Everyone's bank account takes a bit of a hit. Children flock to their windows, clasp their tiny hands underneath their chins, and pray for snow. Once, one of those sets of clasped hands belonged to Georgia Marie Bradley. Christmas was her favorite time of year. And not just because of the carols, and candy canes, and lights, and toy trains, and snow, and Frosty. Oh, she loved all those things, still did, but really it was her father, and their special yearly tradition that lifted the season to the realm of the sacred. She cherished those times with her father more than a miser cherished his piles of gold.
Every year, the week before Christmas, her mother would take her older sister, Virginia, shopping, while Georgia and her father visited the carousel by the ocean. Georgia was in love with it. It was situated in an abandoned warehouse, which had been refurbished to house the carousel year-round. There was something so magical about looking out on the ocean, while they twirled around like snow flakes. The music, the lights, the tented top striped in blue and gold, the glorious, painted horses bobbing up and down on their regal golden poles. Georgia picked a different horse every time; that was part of the game. As she glided up and down, she eagerly waited to spot her father in the crowd, who in turn would be trying to guess which horse she was on, often pretending not to see her until the third time around. After that, each time she went by, he would make a funny face, or put on a Santa hat, even hold up a bouquet of candy canes. Georgia could hardly wait to come around again, to see what in the world he would do next. Sometimes people gave her father funny looks, but that just made the father-daughter duo laugh even harder. By the time the carousel stopped, Georgia would be giggling so hard, tears would be streaming down her face. After ward they would stroll on the beach, hand-in-hand, looking for shells to hang on their Christmas tree.
The last year she and her father went to the carousel, she met a friend. A girl about her age, but much thinner, and strange, it looked as if she didn't have any hair, just a few wispy strands peeking out of her knitted, pink cap. The first time Georgia noticed her, she wasn't on the carousel. She was standing a few feet away from Georgia's father, clinging onto the hand of a boy just a few years older. The boy looked very serious for a child; he stared at Georgia with somber sky-blue eyes that burned a hole into her. Why was he so sad? It was only because of the brightness of the girl that she was able to look away. Because the girl certainly didn't look sad. She looked as if the carousel was the most amazing thing she had ever seen. Georgia felt like that too, so the moment she saw that little girl's delighted face, her shining eyes, she felt an instant bond.
When the ride was over, Georgia went over to introduce herself. "Hi," she said. "What's your name?"
"I'm Georgia. Aren't you going to ride?" Cindy shook her head. "Why not?" Cindy shrugged.
"She wants to," the boy said. He nodded to his sister and nudged her forward. Then he turned those blue eyes on Georgia and once again she felt as if she'd been struck. But it wasn't polite to stare, so she tore her gaze away, and glanced at her father. He nodded. Georgia was thrilled. Normally she only went around once.
"I'll ride with you," Georgia said. "It's the most fun ever." Georgia held out her hand. With a little encouragement from her brother, Cindy clasped Georgia's hand, and together they hopped on side-by-side horses. Georgia helped Cindy onto a magnificent black inside-jumper, then swung onto a regal, white outside-stander. This time, instead of making funny faces, her father smiled at them as they went around. Soon, a woman and a man appeared next to the boy with the striking blue eyes. They clung to each other and waved and smiled at Cindy. With a little encouragement from Georgia, her father finally made one of his famous funny faces. Cindy got it right away. She threw her head back and giggled. A rush of warmth and pride welled up in Georgia. She made sure to give her father an extra big smile, and as their horses galloped around and around, their laughter rang out like ringing bells. And suddenly, it began to snow.
Georgia didn't know what that little girl was going to get for Christmas, but she couldn't imagine a bigger or brighter smile on her face, a smile that was captured forever on their last turn around, by the little boy and his instant camera. Georgia and Cindy parted by waving their mittens at each other, and catching a few stolen glances as they were each led away from the carousel by the ocean. Georgia couldn't wait to see her friend again. And the next time, she would ask her. How did her brother get eyes so blue? And why did he look so sad?
Georgia's second-most favorite place in the whole world was her father's enormous white barn, out of which he ran the family business: Trash and Treasures. They sold pre-owned items, everything from tools to toys. The only thing Georgia loved more than the carousel at Christmas was helping her father sell his wares. Each season offered something special, but everybody in the small Rhode Island town knew it was the place to come for a holiday treat. The barn was covered in twinkling multicolored lights, while the pair of tall spruces outside glittered with red bows and white bulbs. Plastic reindeer stood on the roof guiding Santa on his sleigh, and Bing Crosby sang from the old-fashioned record player behind the counter.
Out would come the space heaters, and gloves, and scarves, and free hot cider, and powdered donuts, and winter items for sale: sleds, Christmas ornaments, tree stands, lights, and presents. They would gift wrap items for free, oh the hours Georgia spent curling the ribbon on the packages just right, handing them over, wishing she could be there when the recipient opened them on Christmas morning. If they were lucky enough to get a snowfall, the property would fill with kids making snowmen and throwing snowballs. If you bought a pair of ice skates, you could often try them out on the frozen pond. Sleds could be tested on the hill out back. The inside of the barn was stacked with shelves and tables, and crates, and every single space was stuffed full with every item imaginable. And even though the vast array of things you could find inside were varied and complex, the sign that hung out front was simple:
Trash and Treasures One Man's Trash is Another Man's Treasure
It was there, underneath the sign, that she next saw the boy with the blue eyes. Suddenly, there he was, standing in the middle of the barn, staring up at it. Georgia didn't recognize him right away, not until she said, "Hello," to his back. Then, he turned around and she saw those eyes. Up until now, Georgia had only been obsessed by things. Colored marbles in glass jars. Dainty hand-painted teacups. Carousels. Licking frosting from the bottom of the bowl after making cookies. This was the first time that another person had gripped her as much as her favorite things and it made her feel all funny inside. She wondered if it was okay to feel this way about another person, a boy. She wondered if this was what they called a "crush." She wondered where Cindy was, eager to see her new friend again.
"Are you looking for toys?" Georgia asked. He simply stared at her. Oh, what had she done? He was a few years older than her, too old for toys. Why didn't she say, "sleds," "Are you looking for sleds?" As she stared at him, she was instantly back on the carousel, going around and around, listening to the snap and whine of his instant camera. Maybe he would be interested in all of their old cameras. There were some really cool ones. She liked the ones with the fancy cases and lenses you twisted on and off. One case actually had a red velvet lining. Georgia liked to run her fingertips over it when no one was watching. She wondered if someone royal used to own it, like a queen. She did this with objects that came in, imagined who owned them, and what their lives were like. But suddenly she was too afraid to suggest anything else in case he thought her too young and annoying.
"Where's Cindy?" she asked. The boy's mouth dropped open. Instead of answering her, he reached into his pocket, pulled out an instant picture, and shoved it at her. It was the shot of her and Cindy, riding the carousel. Cindy had such a big smile on her face. "Cool," Georgia said. She looked over his shoulder. "Is she here?" He didn't answer. After a minute she held the picture out to the boy, but he didn't make a move to take it back.
"Let's go," a man's voice called to the boy. She recognized him as the man who had joined the boy at the carousel to wave at Cindy. The father didn't even say hello to her. So strange that the little girl was the only happy one in the family. The boy turned away from Georgia, head down, and began to follow his dad.
"Wait," she said. "Your picture." He acted as if he didn't hear her. She knew he did. Everything echoed in the big barn, and the Christmas music was barely turned up. For some reason, she felt panicked. As if he mustn't walk off without the picture of Cindy and her beautiful smile. "Hey," she yelled. Just then, the boy's father looked at her. He glanced down and saw the picture in her outstretched hand. Then, he looked at his son for a long moment, and, as if something had been decided, gave a curt nod.
"He wants you to have it," the father said. He put his arm around the boy and they were gone. Georgia ran to the entrance, and stood staring after them. Long after their white station wagon kicked up dirt and disappeared down the driveway, Georgia still stood and stared.
"Georgia. Please come here." Obediently, she walked up to her father, who stood behind the table that constituted their "counter." On top of the table was a large box labeled Christmas.
"The gentleman just dropped it off."
"Do you remember him?" Georgia asked.
"Should I?" her father asked. Georgia handed him the picture. He studied it for a moment. "That explains a lot," he said.
"What?" Georgia asked. "What does it explain?" She reached for the box. Her father gently placed his hand on hers.
"We're not going to open it," he said.
"In case they come back for it someday."
"Why would they come back for it? And why don't they want it?" Her father took her hand and held it. He told her that Cindy had been very sick. Something called "leukemia." She passed away shortly after that ride.
"Is that why she didn't have any hair?"
"Yes," her father said. His voice sounded choked. Georgia didn't know what to say. She felt hot in the face. She felt like crying. She remembered her little head, with no hair. And her big smile. "I'm so proud of you, Peaches," her father said.
"Because of you, that little girl had one last ride. One last, wonderful ride." Georgia had never seen tears roll down her father's cheeks before.
"Don't cry, Dad," she said.
"Your mother and I love your sister and you more than anything in the world," he said. "Do you know that?" He stared at her, expecting an answer, so she nodded. And she did know that too. But she didn't like to see her father so serious or so sad. Luckily, he wiped his tears and presented her with a familiar wink. "Speaking of which—she's expecting you in the kitchen, isn't she?"
"We're making cookies."
"Call me when they're done. I'll pretend I'm Santa Claus."
"You're not fat enough," Georgia said. Her father laughed and winked at her. "I want to lick the bowl, too!"
"Virginia and I get to lick the bowl!" Georgia said as she headed for the house.
"We should put the picture in the box," her dad said. Georgia stopped.
She looked at the picture, then at her father. She didn't really want to give it back. She knew it wasn't logical, but somehow she felt if she kept the picture, she'd be keeping Cindy alive. "In case they come back for it?"
"I want to keep it."
Her father tapped his head. "You'll keep it in here," he said. Then he touched his heart. "And here." Georgia still wanted the picture.
"I won't lose it, or rip it or anything," Georgia said.
"Please, Peaches. Let's put it in the box for them." Georgia nodded, handed her father the photo, and watched as he slipped it in the box. And even though Georgia often went up to the box and put her hand on it, she never opened it. The following year, when the time came to visit the carousel, Georgia asked her father if they could go sledding instead. She still loved the carousel, but from now on they would only visit it during the warmer months. To Georgia, it was just like when their cat, Sammy, curled into a sleeping ball by the fireplace. No matter how much she wanted to go up and pet him, there was just something so soft and sweet about it, she didn't dare disturb the moment. Christmas and the carousel were one of those sleeping moments now. Forever linked with little Cindy, and her last, wonderful ride.
Twenty years later
Georgia was fast asleep when the fire alarm shrieked through her bedroom. She was upright in an instant, swinging her feet over the side of the bed, smelling for smoke. Before she even hit the floor, she called out for her seven-year-old.
"Mom?" He came pounding into her room, his soft brown hair sticking up, his Star Wars pajamas way too small. Even amidst the blaring beeps, Georgia couldn't help but make a mental note to herself to buy him new pajamas for Christmas. Georgia grabbed Ranger's hand, and together they approached the hall outside her bedroom.
"Did you see or smell any smoke?" she asked.
"No." Thank goodness, neither did she. They stood overlooking the railing that looked down onto the auction floor. They technically lived in a giant warehouse, although Georgia liked to think of it as a hip loft. Below she ran her business, Rhode Island's premier auction house, The Treasure Chest. If there was a fire, she would stand to lose everything. She headed for the stairs, still clinging to Ranger's hand, while mentally trying to remember how much her insurance would cover if worse came to worst. She grabbed the fire extinguisher off its hook at the top of the steps, then together they headed down at a brisk pace.
"Maybe the alarm is broken," Ranger said.
"Let's hope," Georgia said.
"Dad's watch," Ranger said. He stopped in the middle of the steps. "I forgot Dad's watch."
"No things, honey, remember?" It was hard for Georgia to spit this out, for she, more than anyone, knew how one could come to love objects, especially those that once belonged to a cherished loved one.
"Here, and here," Georgia said, touching her head and her heart.
Excerpted from No Place Like Home by LINDA LAEL MILLER, Kat Martin, MARY CARTER, LAURA FLORAND. Copyright © 2013 Kensington Publishing Corporation. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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